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A Burke church is honoring the memory of its former pastor by supporting the development of a village in Haiti, the 10th such village the parishioners have financed.

Church of the Nativity, a Catholic church that now counts more than 5,000 families among its members, has been helping impoverished families in Haiti since 1998.

It started as a simple idea, said parishioner Jim McDaniel. Father Richard Martin asked Nativity families to make a small sacrifice during Lent, contributing 50 cents per day for 40 days to help people living in poverty.

“At the end of the first 40-day period, there was $67,000,” McDaniel said, collected from the about 2,500 families who attended the church at the time.

The money was donated to the nonprofit Food for the Poor, which built 27 simple wooden homes for Haitian families that had been living in cardboard shacks, McDaniel said.

When Martin and a group of parishioners, including McDaniel, traveled to Haiti to see the houses, “We were very happy to see that their lives had been changed, but we were also very discouraged to see that so many people were living in poverty,” McDaniel said.

At dinner that night, Martin told the group the story of the starfish:

“As a young boy and girl walked along a beach at dawn, they noticed an old man ahead of them picking up starfish and tossing them into the sea. Catching up with the man, the girl asked why he was doing this. The old man explained that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun.

‘But the beach goes on for miles and there are thousands of starfish,’ exclaimed the girl. ‘How can you alone make any difference?’ The old man looked at the starfish in his hand and then tossed it safely into the waves. He turned to them, smiled and said, ‘I made a difference to that one.’”

The church members resolved to keep working to help bring people out of poverty and dubbed the project Operation Starfish. McDaniel was moved to take early retirement from his government job to volunteer with Operation Starfish.

Since that time, Nativity members have raised more than $4 million that has built 1,100 homes in nine villages. The Operation Starfish concept has been shared and replicated by about 300 churches and schools around the country.

“They have really set quite a precedent in not just their giving, but in the impact that they have made,” said Delane Bailey-Herd, the Haiti project director for Food for the Poor. “They’re not just willing to send their resources, but they’re willing to go.”

Contributions made in honor of Martin will provide the initial funding for the 10th village—located about an hour away from Port-au-Prince, in Dalon, Grand Boulage—that will be called Good Shepherd Village.

“Father Martin saw his role as that of a shepherd,” McDaniel said. “He never wanted anything named for him; he was very, very humble.”

The village will have 120 homes with proper sanitation, access to clean drinking water and solar lighting. It will also have a school, a community center, vocational training, agricultural resources and a marketplace.

Food for the Poor is hoping to add about 40 homes per year to the village over the next three years, Bailey-Herd said.

By providing basic sanitation, access to clean drinking water and other facilities like a health clinic, the contributions that Church of the Nativity has made have been literally life-saving for Haitian families, particularly children, according to Bailey-Herd. Meeting these basic needs helps prevent the spread of diseases like cholera, which led to the deaths of many Haitians following the 2010 earthquake.

The efforts also include education, vocational training and opportunities like animals for the families to raise for food and possibly a source of income.

Church of the Nativity, like Food for the Poor, believes that these tools will help break the cycle of poverty, Bailey-Herd said.

The church’s charitable efforts have not been limited to Haiti, McDaniel said. They have also done work in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cameroon and with local nonprofits.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com